Camel Spiders: Behind an E-Mail Sensation From Iraq

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
June 29, 2004

This spring, an arachnophobe's biggest nightmare started to pop up in e-mail in-boxes.

A photo of two huge spiders, each the size of a man's calf, was accompanied by an alarming note. The sender said his or her friend—or friend of a friend—knew a soldier stationed in Iraq who had said that these spiders could inject a sleeping soldier with anesthetic, then chew out a chunk of flesh.

Creepy? Yes. But arachnid experts say it's a hoax.

In fact, the creatures in the photo aren't spiders at all. They're actually solpugids, or solifugids (aka camel spiders, aka wind scorpions). Along with spiders, they are members of the class Arachnida.

The eight-legged solifugids have no venom glands, and the largest species is no more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) long with its legs outstretched.

"If any solpugid has anything they can inject, I haven't heard of it," said Rod Crawford, an arachnologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.

Crawford has been debunking this and other spider myths for several years. This rumor, he said, spread to Western countries during the 1990-91 Gulf War and has now reemerged and become even more widespread with the return of U.S. troops to Iraq.

"Wind Scorpions" Around the World

In an article in the July issue of National Geographic magazine, writer and photographer Mark W. Moffett tracks "wind scorpions" in the Middle East and closer to home. While in Baja California, Mexico, Moffett and arachnologist Warren Savary spotted a new species in a research station's collection.

"Just as we were about to leave … I spotted one jar that had something I thought I hadn't seen before," said Savary, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "I pulled it out and said, 'Oh my God!'"

The new species has a horn on the top of its mouthparts, something that no other species in North America has. "It was pretty easy to see that it was new," Savary said. The arachnologist plans to name the species after Actaeon, a mythical Greek hunter who was transformed into a stag.

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